Resistance against tar sands and Keystone XL pipeline growing stronger


More than a pipeline

Keystone XL is the proposed expansion to the existing Keystone Pipeline, which will, when completed, transport synthetic crude oil from the Alberta tar sands in Canada, across the US, to the gulf coast. TransCanada, a North American energy infrastructure company and the sole owner of the Keystone Pipeline, which started operating in June 2010, is planning to build the extension. If the XL Pipeline extension is stopped, it could force Alberta to significantly slow its extraction of tar sands, also known as oil sands.

Those opposing the pipeline extension argue that spills will threaten local groundwater resources, including the Ogallala, one of the world’s largest aquifers.

Grave consequences

The pipeline will also open access to the second-largest known fossil fuel reserve in the world, the only larger reserve being the oil fields in Saudi Arabia. This will have grave consequences for climate change. As world leading climate scientist James Hansen put it: “An overwhelming objection is that exploitation of tar sands would make it implausible to stabilize climate and avoid disastrous global climate impacts.”

The process of making liquid fuel from tar sands requires enormous amounts of energy and water. Greenhouse gases emitted during the production process are two to four times more than those resulting from conventional crude production.

The extraction of tar sands, which involves dredging up vast areas of land, is also hugely damaging to the local environment, polluting water sources and irreversibly damaging the ecosystems of the pristine Boreal Forest and associated wetlands. This, in turn, will have a devastating effect on the health and way of life of the local indigenous communities of Cree, Dene and Métis.


Campaigns against tar sands development have been led by Canadian indigenous communities, known as First Nations, with opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline being joined by indigenous leaders from across North America. Tom Goldtooth, director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, said:

“The Canadian tar sands, the proposed Keystone XL and all the other current and proposed pipelines and heavy hauls, are weapons of mass destruction leading the path to triggering the final overheating of Mother Earth. President Obama made promises to Native Nations. Here is an opportunity for him to honor those promises and be a man of conscience by standing up to corporate power, address the compounding changes of climate change and over-consumption of the resources of Mother Earth, and saying no to the Keystone XL pipeline.”


Supporters of the extension, including Transcanada and the US Chamber of Commerce, have focussed heavily on job creation and energy security arguments while trying to downplay any environmental concerns. They were helped with the latter by a recent environmental impact assessment by the US State Department, which concluded that the pipeline extension would have “no significant impact” on the environment.

However, claims by TransCanada that the pipeline will create 20,000 jobs have been disputed in a report by Cornell University’s Global Labor Institute, which states that the State Department has estimated a maximum 6,000 jobs, not all of which will be new, and few which will be local. Counter-arguments have also been boosted with three major unions, the Transport Workers Union (TWU), Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) and the National Farmer’s Union coming out against the pipeline extension (see here and here).

The energy security argument has been characterised by the use of the term ‘ethical oil’. Originally coined by Conservative activist Ezra Levant, it attempts to pose a choice between Canadian ‘ethical oil’ and foreign ‘conflict oil’. In the words of Levant, “You can’t fill up your car’s gastank with solar panels or windmills or cold fusion or dilithium crystals. It’s Canadian ethical oil, or Saudi terrorist oil.”

A major PR offensive around the concept has been unleashed, which includes an advertising campaign on the Oprah Winfrey network suggesting that supporting the tar sands will help to “free” women in Saudi Arabia. Even Canada’s environment minister is using the term.

However, the campaign has also seen some setbacks, with fake Twitter accounts being linked to the office of a former Nebraska Senator working for the American Petroleum Institute (see here) and revelations that photos used on the Ethical Oil website are faked and stolen (see here).

Claims that tar sands will improve ‘energy security’ have been challenged by Oil Change International, which said in a recent report that Keystone XL will, in fact, transport Canadian oil to US refineries for export to overseas markets. The reports adds that Valero, the only US company among the six customers that have jointly committed to purchasing 76 percent of Keystone XL’s initial capacity, has a business model that relies on refining heavy sour crude for export. The other refiners are Motiva, a joint venture between Royal Dutch Shell and the Saudi government, Total of France, two Canadian producers and one international oil-trading firm. Suggestions that the oil was destined for export rather than domestic use were hastily refuted by the industry (see here, for example).

Valero has also recently acquired the Pembroke refinery in Wales (previously owned by Chevron), 11 terminals and around 1,000 petrol stations in the UK and Ireland (mostly Texaco-branded). These, combined with the XL Pipeline, would allow a direct route between the Alberta tar sands and the UK and Irish markets. (see here for details of Valero’s plans).

Stepping up the fight

The sit-ins outside the White House were the first phase of an ongoing campaign aimed at pressuring Obama to use his power of veto over the pipeline extension. Organisers have promised “something big” for 7th or 8th October, when the last State Department hearing into the matter will take place in Washington DC. A final decision is expected before the end of the year.

Calls for further civil disobedience have been supported by Canadian First Nations, American Indian Tribes, Territorial, Provincial and Federal First Nations Governments and advocacy groups. A sit-in against the tar sands is planned for 26th September in Ottawa.

The call for this latter protest, scheduled to begin at 10am in front of the Centennial Flame on Parliament Hill, has been endorsed by hundreds of people from across North America. The action is to oppose the tar sands industry and push for a clean, green energy future that honours indigenous rights and prioritises the health of the environment and communities.

For more information on campaigns against tar sands, see Tar Sands Action, the UK No Tar Sands network, and the Indigenous Environment Network.